Burns on the Page: Jamie Quatro and Lily King in Conversation

But this story begins where others end: a boy and a girl in love, a wedding, a happily-ever-after.

Jamie Quatro’s debut novel, Fire Sermon, is a magnetic—and provocative—story of love and obsession, and the complexities of marriage; a map of one woman’s emotional, psychological and spiritual desires, and the decisions those desires inform. The booksellers who handpick titles for our Discover Great New Writers program fell immediately in love with Fire Sermon, thrilled to have found a novel that so perfectly captures imperfect—messy, even—interior lives from so many different angles.

Not unlike Lily King’s dazzling fourth novel, Euphoria, a feverish, brooding tale that threatened to stop our hearts—while keeping us reading late into the night. (A little over a decade ago, we lingered over the pages of The Pleasing Hour, Lily’s extraordinary debut—a coming of age story so assured in character and voice that we gave it our 1999 Discover Award.)

So here are Jamie and Lily on finding the balance between the said and the unsaid, the art and craft of writing, and marriage—including what happens when the two people in a marriage are not, in fact, experiencing the same marriage… 

LK: Fire Sermon truly burns on the page. I tore through those pages—enthralled, shocked (and it takes a lot to shock me), mesmerized. I’d love to know what it felt like to write it.

JQ: Ha, I love that I shocked you! And funny you should ask what writing it felt like. It felt like cheating—because it was cheating. Instead of working on the novel I was “supposed” to be writing, I was sneaking off to write these urgent prose poems and letters and prayers. When I had 100 pages of material I sent them to my agent. She read the pages and told me to keep up the affair.

LK: That’s so funny. Once it was official did the passion cool a bit? Or did you just write the whole thing in a state of white heat?

JQ: The fire-in-my-belly was still intense, but for a different reason: I wanted to make my deadline. I worked at my kitchen table all day every day while the kids were in school. It was exhausting and when I took breaks I felt completely disconnected from reality. It was like being slightly drunk. I’d leave to pick up my son from school and think, I shouldn’t be driving in this state. Unfortunately I seem to work best in these pressure-cooker conditions. What about you? Do you tend to write in giant intense bursts? Or are you one of those disciplined writers I envy, the thousand-words-a-day-no-matter-what type? (And I’m also curious what parts of the novel shocked you?)

LK: That’s amazing. I’m intrigued by the short-term pressure cooker situation. I have read that Ishiguro piece in the Guardian many times, about how he wrote the first draft of Remains of the Day in four weeks. He called it the Crash, and he shut himself up in a Harry Potter-esque cupboard all day and night and never answered the phone or looked at the mail. His fictional world became the true reality, as it sounds like it did for you. I’ve only done that for a few days at a time, and I need to leave the house and stay somewhere else to do it, but I fantasize about doing a Crash a lot. I have only written a few stories under that kind of deadline pressure, never a novel. I find my creative bursts to be unpredictable, and most of the time I’m just showing up to the job every day and trying to push it a little further along. I used to say I couldn’t fix a word count because I needed to pick up my kids at school no matter what, but now one’s in college and the other drives herself so I have no excuses. But I still write slowly.

I think what shocked me in Fire Sermon most was the husband and their relationship. Without giving anything away, I’ll just say that it hurt to read those scenes, physically hurt. Did it hurt to write it? I suppose the biggest question it raises for me is, “Is any religion that requires adherence to its rules in that situation humane or loving or just?” Help me into the complexity of that, because I see it as a GET OUT OF THERE situation.

JQ: The Crash! Yes, that’s a bit how it was, though it would have been more charming in a Cupboard-Beneath-the-Stairs, with letters delivered by owls and magical visits from a big-eared house elf.

I don’t see religion as the only reason, or even the primary reason, Maggie stays. One of the most heartbreaking things about women in Maggie’s situation is their inability to act, or to think rationally about what’s happening to them, while those on the outside can see it so clearly: this is a get out of there situation!

And right, those scenes that shocked you are intense. Drafting them actually felt highly technical. How do I say just enough to communicate what’s happening, but no more? Too much detail will drive readers away; not enough will make them scratch their heads. This is always my struggle writing about physical intimacy. You can’t use the vocabulary, and the sex has to be about something other than the sex. You have to say it without saying it, you know?

Do you find writing sex scenes—whether the sex is good or meh or ugly—technically challenging? Have some been more difficult for you than others? Do you have any tips or suggestions—things you’ve learned along the way?

LK: You achieved the perfect balance between the said and the unsaid in those scenes.

I find writing sex scenes in which both people are actually enjoying themselves much more difficult than writing bad sex. Bad sex has humor or menace to it, and you can use the vocabulary in ways that only make it more awful, and it’s fun. But the writing of good sex? Blech. I get out of those situations very quickly. It’s a death trap. Good sex is all about the tension beforehand anyway, as you capture so well in this novel.

Before Fire Sermon you published a highly acclaimed collection of stories (I Want to Show You More). Did you find that your process changed from short to long? Did old habits have to die?

JQ: I agree with you about writing good sex. Get out of there fast. Though I think of James Salter’s sex scenes in Light Years and A Sport and a Pastime… how does he do it? The perfect lines of dialogue, maybe? The small brushstrokes of physical detail?

As for novels versus stories: in the initial drafting phase, working on the novel felt much the same. One sentence leading to the next. I began to notice the difference as the word count grew. I started having to do things I’d never done with stories. I made a timeline and charted my characters’ ages and physical locations year by year. The revision stage was also challenging. I realized that if I changed something on page 125, it would require adjustments back on pages 7, 23, and 64. And the change on 64 would mean I had to cut pages 82-85. And so forth.

I know some writers have a form they feel is most “native” to their abilities, and I do think mine is the story form. Did you start out as a novelist? Do you have a form—story, poetry, essay—you like best?

LK: Like so many of us, I started out with stories. In high school I took creative writing for two semesters and we had to have a three-and-half-page short story on the teacher’s desk every Monday morning. I kept writing stories in college, after college, in grad school. But the moment grad school was over I got an idea for something that couldn’t fit in a story, and I figured I had to try to write a novel. I always have a few short stories going, and I very much want to finish a collection after this novel I’m working on, but I’ve put most of my writing energy into novels since my early thirties. I can’t say it’s a natural fit—they can often feel like a forced march at certain points—but I do like the great puzzle of it, and the slow process of solving it.

Speaking of puzzles, I loved how you described Fire Sermon in a recent interview. You said it was about “Illicit sex, marital fidelity, loss of virginity, childbirth, parenting, sex toys, marital rape, poetry, 9/11, digital eroticism, dogs and cats, Harry Potter as therapy, the intersection of Buddhism and Christianity, the sexually ecstatic as a pathway to God.” Who doesn’t want to read that book?

One of the biggest tensions in the novel is marriage. Maggie and Thomas are married but they are not in the same marriage. They are not playing by the same rules. She is in a position not unlike a heroine of a different time, Dorothea Brooke or Anna Karenina, though the constraints are different, seemingly more internal. She has autonomy, but she is still stuck. Why did you choose to wrestle with this beast of a topic now?

JQ: While I was drafting the book, I didn’t know why I was writing about the things I did. I only felt a sense of urgency. I couldn’t not write it. Now that it’s come into the world at this particular cultural moment, I hope Fire Sermon might become part of the ongoing dialogue related to the sexual empowerment of women. We’re all talking about male gatekeepers and the abuses of power in the workplace. Women are stepping forward with grace and courage to speak out against harassment by men in positions of power. But what about sexual coercion and abuse within marriage? It happens. Are we talking about it? And what about religious married women, in which traditional gender roles and prohibitions related to extramarital sex might inhibit their courage to speak up?

I believe it’s a crucial time for women to be writing frankly and openly about female sexual longing and transgression in general. The assumption that male artists can write about sex and infidelity but female artists should be more demure is passé, even dangerous. If we’re going to continue the path toward re-claiming and restoring gender equality, we must be allowed the same imaginative expression, on the page, as our male counterparts.

LK: It really is a novel that opens up a lot of doors for discussion and debate. And I love how while you provoke the reader intellectually, the book is working on a visceral, physical level, too. Often you get one or the other in a novel.

Tell me when you started writing and why.

JQ: I don’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t writing! I began writing and illustrating short stories in second grade (I know this because my mom saved them all) and in sixth grade I won the state Young Authors’ Festival for a sci-fi piece called “In Pac-Man” about a boy who gets sucked into Pac Man and becomes one of the ghosts in the maze. The teacher published the story for the class and had everyone read and discuss it. I will never forget the visceral high: I had a readership! To quote James in Fire Sermon (who is alluding to Denis Johnson’s “Car Crash While Hitchhiking”): I’ve gone looking for that feeling ever since.

I took the English track in college and grad school, but eventually found my way into the MFA program at Bennington. Having other people—professionals—take me seriously as a writer was crucial. It’s one of the biggest reasons I think MFA programs can be beneficial. Do you have an MFA? What do you think about MFA programs in general? Do you recommend them to your students?

LK: I do have one. I didn’t even know about them when I graduated from college, which was probably good because it gave me most of my twenties to work a ton of different jobs and recognize that this writing thing was not going away. Somehow I got wind of these programs and their scholarships and stipends and I sent off a bunch of applications. I went to Syracuse and I have never regretted it. The feedback, the writing friendships, the academic environment—it’s all been invaluable to me. I met one of my very dearest friends there, Laura McNeal, and she influenced me to the core in terms of style, subject, language, and writing practice—the seriousness with which you have to approach it. What I learned through reading her work and watching her level of commitment changed me permanently as a writer. What is most valuable about the MFA is often the community of nascent writers you build which can sustain you for decades afterward, so I do often recommend the experience to students.

Has there been a person who has influenced you like that? And where do you go for inspiration? There can come a moment when I am at my desk and realize that I need step away, sometimes for a day, sometimes longer, to replenish, to remember the basics—why I like to write, why I chose to write this particular book. Do you have moments like that and if so, what do you do and where do you turn to get reignited?

JQ: David Gates was my first workshop teacher at Bennington, and I’ve never worked with a better line editor. His eye is spot-on. I learned everything about self-editing from him. He was able to show me how much superfluous language I was using, how many stupid ticks and clichés (I will never write “blinked his eyes” or “shrugged her shoulders” again!) He is also one of those generous writers who help other aspiring writers. To this day I know he’ll read a draft if I ask him too—and he’ll give it a ferocious edit. The British novelist Samantha Harvey has also had a big influence on me. We met at the MacDowell Colony in 2009 and have been close friends ever since. Her reading tastes, her writing habits—the seriousness of approach you say you learned from Laura McNeal—Sam is brilliant. I’m enormously lucky to have her example and presence in my life.

And for inspiration I almost always turn to poetry. Jack Gilbert is my go-to, along with Sharon Olds and Marie Howe. I studied poetry in grad school—the British Romantics—and I often find myself returning to Wordsworth and Keats and Shelley. I re-read Blake’s “Marriage of Heaven and Hell” while I was drafting Fire Sermon. The wedding of opposites leading to a kind of divine awakening…that probably explains something, though I’m not sure what.

LK: Are there other things you turn to apart from books to clear your head?

JQ: Spending time with Scott and my kids, going to a film, hanging out with friends. Running and yoga both clear my head, though in different ways. In yoga I don’t have space for thought, I’m so focused on my breathing and the flow of postures, whereas when I’m running my body is on auto-pilot, so my thoughts roam. I often solve story problems during long runs.

Lately my favorite head-clearing activity is taking my golden retriever puppy, Luna, to the new dog park/beer garden downtown. It’s called Play-Wash-Pint. We sit in lawn chairs or play corn hole or ladder ball while our dogs run around like mad. There’s a real sense of community among the dog owners, and of course it’s a joy to watch the dogs interact. Luna has bonded with a French bulldog named LeRoy. The two of them are inseparable. The dog park experience is therapy, really.

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